On the first month, Daughter is in the peach orchard. It is May, and the peaches are full, flushing orange, swelling with juice. Daughter is holding a basket. Her hair is long and thick over her shoulders. It turns blond in the speckled sun. She is picking the fruit that has already ripened. As she goes, she cradles the basket in her arms. She is singing with a ginger smile.
On the second month, Mother is sitting on the porch. There is a plum out on the table in front of her. The sun is making the shined patches of its skin light up. She is watching Daughter read a book on the lawn. She eyes Daughter’s stomach. It is not full yet. Daughter is wearing a pink dress that flows outward below her breasts. No one will know yet. Mother imagines the third month. Daughter will look as if she has swallowed all the juice from the orchard. Her face will be pink, even while she is sleeping. Mother picks up the plum and digs her nail far into the skin. She bites her lip. Daughter will have to leave.
Mother remembers two things about arriving in the town of Dawson: how heavy Daughter’s bassinette was and Mrs. Cutmann. Daughter had cried all through the trees that hung over the edges of the road, through the morning sun that lit the roofs of the verandas, and far out into the orchards where Mother sat to rest. “A baby,” Mrs. Cutmann would later tell her, “should never cry more than five minutes. It’s bad for the developing nerves.” She had taken the bassinette from Mother when she led her inside. Mother had never seen china before, a table that hid beneath a tablecloth, or a stair that wound into the ceiling. Mrs. Cutmann set the tea before Mother while she told her she was a woman of charity. “I believe in teaching people to help themselves.”
Mother knew how to do very little. Mrs. Cutmann watched her for the first three months. “Always clean the master bedroom first,” she told Mother. “The linen is always folded lengthwise.” It was two more months before Mother was ready to clean other homes. In the mornings, she would feed Daughter in the kitchen while she made Mrs. Cutmann her tea. In the nights, she was Mrs. Cutmann’s maid, her cook, her seamstress, but Mother earned her bed and what was leftover from dinner.
Daughter slept at Mrs. Cutmann’s side until she was near three years old. Mother spent the nights imagining she could hear her baby’s breaths. “A baby,” Mrs. Cutmann would say, “must always be near someone wise.” Mother knew she herself was not wise. In the sunrise, she would wait for Mrs. Cutmann to bring Daughter from her crib.
When Daughter first began to talk, she would call Mrs. Cutmann mommy. This would always make Mrs. Cutmann smile. Mother would tell her child over and over that Mrs. Cutmann was not her mother. When Daughter cried, Mrs. Cutmann would hold her close. She would send Mother into the kitchen until Daughter’s tears had subsided. Mother would wait near the kitchen doorframe, her head against the adjacent wall. There was only one time when Mother refused to go to the kitchen. She held Daughter to her chest. She was leaning against the front door. “You have nothing out there,” Mrs. Cutmann said. “There is no one who would take you in. Your daughter will starve.”
Mother remembers nothing about where she came from, or at least she pretends she doesn’t. Her dreams, though, are cluttered with old places and the people she never loved. There is, for example, the orphanage. The director is always grabbing at her wrists and telling her she is too dull to ever have a home. She never says anything, and the director won’t stop saying it over and over, the grip around Mother’s wrist growing unbearably tight. Sometimes, there is also the old schoolhouse. The teacher’s voice is distant but reaches where Mother sits. She is always called to the front of the classroom, and as she walks closer, she can see there is no teacher there. She turns to face the class, but there are never any other students. The dream always ends with the only man Mother was ever with. He is always leaving her in an unlit field. There are never any stars overhead. “I won’t be back for you,” he always says, and Mother always watches him walk towards the sky. Her belly begins to stretch and stretch, and when it pops, she wakes up.
On the third month, Mother is in the kitchen. She is making soup: alfalfa sprouts, basil, aloe leaves – everything that heals. Daughter is at the table with a cloth over her eyes. “How do you feel, sweet,” says Mother.
“Still a little queasy,” say Daughter. Mother brings the soup to the table. Through the back window, the trees are stretching their arms in the morning wind.
“Eat,” says Mother. She takes the cloth from Daughter’s eyes and holds her chin. Daughter’s nose is the most precious one Mother has ever seen. Mother thinks it is still as small as it was when she was just born. Daughter smiles and takes the spoon.
“What would I do without you, Mum?” Mother looks at the alfalfa floating in the bowl.
“Where did you go yesterday?” says Mother.
“I went into town. I saw Mrs. Cutmann at the market.” Beneath the table, Mother’s hand grips the leg of her seat. She hopes Daughter wore the pink dress yesterday. “She said she wants to speak with you,” says Daughter.
“Did she say why?”
“She didn’t say.” Daughter stands with her empty bowl. “She only told me it was an important matter.”
“I see,” says Mother. She watches Daughter walk to the sink. She is so tiny. Her arms and legs are bony, as though they grew only long and never gained their strength. When her belly grows, her back will arch like a branch. Mother looks out into the backyard. She imagines Mr. Cutmann coming through the trees.
Mother remembers three things about meeting Mr. Cutmann: how infinite his shadow had seemed in the parlor, how Daughter had cried into her shoulder, and how bright Mrs. Cutmann’s face had been. From the corner where she stood, Mother had been able to smell the perfume on Mrs. Cutmann’s chest. “I’m so glad you’re home, darling,” Mrs. Cutmann said, while Mr. Cutmann straightened his black suit jacket. Mother thought his green eyes looked bright and sly against his dark mustache.
“Dear,” he said, “do introduce me to the new help.” Mrs. Cutmann’s face dimmed.
“She’s a homeless girl I found loitering in the orchard,” Mrs. Cutmann said. “That’s all you need to know of her.”
“We’ll have dinner then,” said Mr. Cutmann. Mother sliced the ham in the kitchen, while Mr. Cutmann smoked his cigar. Mrs. Cutmann folded the napkins on the table six times. She talked about the rainfall for the year until Mr. Cutmann cleared his plate. Mother was carrying Daughter, who was asleep in her arms, up the stairs when Mr. Cutmann came to grab at the inside of her thigh. She ran up the rest of the stairs. She locked her bedroom door behind her.
On the fourth month, Daughter is on the front porch. Mother is sitting in the parlor. The window is open, but the curtains are drawn. Daughter does not know Mother can hear her. “Darling, darling what will I do with you?” Mother can hear the tears in her voice. She knows Daughter has her hand on her stomach. It is what Mother did some years ago when she was full. “I cannot keep you on my own. I love you already.” Then,“I don’t want you to be born.” Mother thinks of walking onto the porch. She thinks of holding her daughter until the sun slips the day away. In the evening, Daughter comes inside the house, not seeing her mother’s body rocking back and forth.
In the town of Dawson, everyone knows that Mr. Cutmann is a proper gentleman. He likes his clothes altered by the local tailor. He tips waiters thirty percent. When he is in town, he goes to the local assemblies. On Sundays, he is in church. The children call him Uncle C. He buys them peppermints from the candy bar. When Mrs. Cutmann says his trade makes him travel weeks, sometimes even months, everyone nods and says her husband is a worldly man. Some nights, Mrs. Cutmann puts a lamp in the window. It never brings her husband home.
Mr. Cutmann treats his mistresses well. He brings them with him to New York and San Francisco. Mrs. Cutmann has dark hair. She wears black dresses, even in the spring. Mr. Cutmann likes his women blond. He buys them pink dresses and crystal perfume from abroad. Mother always feels her skin shrinking when Mr. Cutmann comes back to Dawson, like three weeks ago when the corners of her eyes felt tight, and she found him wandering among the trees out back. She remembers when she lived in the Cutmann house. He used to knock on her door every night. She would hide in her closet until she heard his steps down the stairs. In the mornings, he would be in the kitchen. She would let him walk Daughter down the road just until the gate.
Mrs. Cutmann told Mother a story. They were in the kitchen. Mother was at the stove. Mrs. Cutmann sat stiff on a stool. “My first maid had fled all the way from Boston,” said Mrs. Cutmann. “She looked like a fourteen year old. She was good at sewing buttons. I taught her everything a girl should know. I let her work in other houses and sleep here for the nights. She earned her stay working nights for me.” Mother began to chop onions. “It was a year before it began to happen. My husband began to call her into the library again and again.” Mrs. Cutmann stood, and the stool fell. “I can’t have a baby, you know. The doctors told me.”
Mother put the onions in a pot. “I’m sorry ma’am.”
Mrs. Cutmann turned to the door. “I don’t want a maid,” then, “I don’t want to be alone.”
There were times when Mother wondered if Mr. Cutmann thought she was beautiful. In the afternoon, she would brush her hair long. She served dinner with it down when Mr. Cutmann was in town. But she hated him in the dark nights when she would find him on the stair, once in the doorframe of her room; she didn’t go in to sleep that night. There were some white moons when she thought of his twitching lips. He smelled of smoke and oil. But Mrs. Cutmann would always whisper in her head, “An unwed girl with a child will be alone forever.” Mother remembered this each time she pictured Mr. Cutmann’s sly eyes.
On the fifth month, Daughter is making a new dress. It is long. Mother can tell because the back of it trails on the floor as Daughter pulls it through the sewing machine. She sees Mother watching her. Daughter stops when she is done sewing up the second side of the garment. “Am I doing it wrong?” she says.
“No, it looks lovely,” says Mother. Daughter’s cheeks are round when she smiles.
“Oh good,” she says. “I was hoping I remembered how you showed me.” Mother smiles too.
“You’ve learned fast,” she says.
“I have a wonderful teacher.” Mother picks up the dress. She holds it up to Daughter and begins to smooth the seams.
“One day,” she says, “you’ll have a daughter of your own to teach.”
“One day.” Daughter has become preoccupied with rubbing the fingers of her left hand with her right. She looks up suddenly. “Do you think it’s possible to raise a child you don’t want?”
Mother smoothes Daughter’s hair. “I think it is.”
“Have you ever wanted someone to love you, Mum?”
“There is no such thing as love, sweet. Only attraction.”
Mother knows nothing about her mother. As a little girl, she wondered about her into the dark. There was always nothing there. The orphanage was full of boys. They used to pull at her hair and when she got older, at the clasp of her skirt. The director used to make her clean his room. These were the hours she could escape all those greedy hands. The director would sit in the armchair. He watched her brush the dust from the bookshelf, strip down the sheets. One day, he stretched her out on the bed. Mother spit on him when he was done. He put his hands on her neck and then, released her. “You’re far too old to be an orphan,” he said. “I’ll put you out in the spring.”
Sometimes, Mother wonders how she can love her daughter so much. When Daughter was a child, her face used to grow the same dull expression the director’s had. There were some nights Mother was glad her daughter did not sleep next to her. She was glad Mrs. Cutmann took what was hers.
On the sixth month, Mother is having tea with Mrs. Cutmann. “The water,” Mrs. Cutmann tells her, “should always be just bearably hot.” Mother takes the pot back to the stove.
“What is it that you wanted to ask me?” says Mother when she sits again. They are on the porch. The wicker chair squeaks as Mother leans forward.
“This house,” says Mrs. Cutmann, “are you and your daughter happy in it?”
Mother speaks quickly. “Of course we are, ma’am. We’re very grateful to you for it.”
“As you should be.”
“You know we couldn’t do without you.” Mother goes to get the tea. “We don’t even know how to repay you for all the kindness you’ve showed us.”
“Well, I do know.”
“What’s that now?” Mother pours the tea and sits.
“My maid,” says Mrs. Cutmann putting a hand over her eyes, “has run off.” She looks at Mother. “The girl got herself pregnant.” Mother moves her eyes to the front lawn. Daughter is not there. Mother hopes she will stay inside until Mrs. Cutmann leaves.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” says Mother. Mrs. Cutmann smiles and reaches out for Mother’s chin.
“I need you to move back in.” Mother is watching Mrs. Cutmann’s eyes. They are not smiling like her lips. Mother pulls back her head.
“Surely, you can find a new maid,” says Mother. She stands. Mrs. Cutmann takes her tea and sips it. When her cup is empty, she stands too.
“I have always thought that those who receive charity should learn to learn to be philanthropic. You must learn too.” Mrs. Cutmann gathers her purse. She looks down on Mother, although she is quite shorter. “It is my time of need. I will give you three more months to straighten your affairs.” As Mrs. Cutmann nears the gate, Daughter comes out to the porch. She is wearing the dress she made. Mrs. Cutmann turns. “Your daughter will come too. She will attend my side, and you will see to it that she behaves herself.” Mother watches Mrs. Cutmann walk down the road until she is as small as her thumb.
Mother remembers moving to the house behind the peach orchard. Daughter was six. She carried her basket of clothing but kept dropping the socks in the mud. The house looked like it was just unearthed. There was dirt clinging to the side boarding. Mother and Daughter waded through the rain-spat grass. “Why are we here, Mum?” said Daughter.
“This is our home,” said Mother.
“It doesn’t look like a home.” Mother put a hand on Daughter’s head.
“Our home,” said Mother, “is wherever you and I are together.” Daughter ran up the porch steps.
But Mother tries to forget Daughter’s sixteenth birthday. It was the day Mrs. Cutmann reappeared on her doorstep. Much can be forgotten in ten years. Mother admits she forgot she does not own her own home. She forgot what Mrs. Cutmann said after she found her husband outside Mother’s bedroom door. “I will find you a house. When your daughter comes of age, you will send her to me.” She forgot how Mr. Cutmann had been sitting on the front porch when she left holding Daughter’s hand. He had watched them walk all the way down the road.
When Mother opened the front door, all she could see was how many grey streaks were running through Mrs. Cutmann’s hair. Mrs. Cutmann’s cheeks, though, were still high boned and un-creased. “A visitor,” said Mrs. Cutmann stepping inside, “should never be left standing on the porch.” Mother does not shut the door all the way. She feels as though her stomach is shrinking, folding into itself.
“Mrs. Cutmann, I didn’t know you would be coming.”
“You think I would miss your daughter’s sixteenth birthday? Besides, I practically raised her when she was a baby.” Daughter came down the stair. Mrs. Cutmann’s strides were short and quick, as she moved to place her hand on Daughter’s shoulder. “Your daughter has come of age. She should learn to work.” Mrs. Cutmann moved her eyes into Mother. “Just as you did.”
“She’s just a girl, ma’am,” said Mother.
“I expect I can teach her to become a young woman.” Mrs. Cutmann opened the front door. “Send her with her things tomorrow.”
In the morning, Mother woke Daughter at seven o’clock. Daughter tried to comfort her as they walked down the road. But Mother remembers one thing about dropping Daughter off at the Cutmanns’ house: the way Mr. Cutmann looks at her child. Mother was carrying the basket of clothing when they reached the front porch. They did not have to knock. Mrs. Cutmann opened the door when she heard their steps. “A hostess,” she would later tell Mother, “should always watch out the window for her company.”
Mrs. Cutmann went into the library to find the key to Mother’s old room. Mr. Cutmann was there in the parlor when Mother stepped inside the house. His was reading the Dawson Daily but looked up when Daughter came through the door. Mother looked back. She saw that her daughter was beautiful. The sun was coming through the doorframe, outlining Daughter’s curls gold. Her eyes were the color of new leaves. Mr. Cutmann was trying to catch them. Daughter was looking to her mother.
“Close the door,” said Mother. Her voice was sharp. She began to hate how the warm air brought Daughter’s cheeks to life.
“Yes, please come in,” said Mr. Cutmann. He rose from his parlor chair slowly. Mother wanted to push him back down. She wanted to push Daughter out the door. She wished all of Daughter’s golden hair would suddenly melt from her scalp. Mostly, Mother wished that she herself were still blooming. Mrs. Cutmann reappeared from the library.
“Ma’am,” said Mother, “I do not think my daughter will be suitable for your home. She is clumsy, and she learns slowly.”
“Then, she is just like her mother,” said Mrs. Cutmann.
“She will be no good to you.”
“She is no good because you raised her that way.”
“Just let me take her home.” Mother took Daughter’s wrist.
Mrs. Cutmann turned to Daughter. “Come,” she said. Her heels made precise clicks on the stairs. “You may leave her clothes in the maid’s room. Remember to close the gate on your way out.” Mr. Cutmann watched Daughter walk all the way up the stairs.
Mother came to stand before him. “Let her be,” she said. Mr. Cutmann looked up at her. He smiled.
“My dear, jealousy does not become you.”
On the seventh month, Mother is in her room. She is looking in the mirror. She notices that she is growing older. There are creases at the nooks of her eyes. Her neck is still smooth, but her nose seems bigger. There are freckles on her hands. She lets down her hair. It is still blond on top, but she knows underneath there are grey strands. Daughter is outside. The house is quiet. Mother does not think she will be able to live alone.
Mother does not know in what way she will ever find herself. She has had a lifetime without decisions. Everything that is hers she has not picked with her own hands. Mother is still a child, wearing the face of an aging woman. She knows time will shrivel her away.
Mother does not know if she wants to remember the day Daughter came back home. It was two weeks after Daughter turned eighteen. Mother had not visited the Cutmanns’ house for her daughter’s birthday. Daughter looked tired as she came through the gate. She was wearing the same yellow dress she had left in. Now, it was stained and torn at the knees. Mother put her arm around Daughter as she walked up the stairs. “What are you doing here?”
“Mrs. Cutmann says it is not good for me to be away from home.” Mother imagined Mr. Cutmann sitting on his porch, watching Daughter walk through his gate and down the road. “Come inside,” said Mother. She opened the front door. Daughter hesitated. “How is Mr. Cutmann?” Mother said.
Mother knows her daughter is bright. But she knows her daughter wants to be loved. After all, Mother herself is planted in her. Most days, Mother just wants to cradle Daughter in her arms, back and forth like a swaying tree. Mother knows her daughter is bound for devastation. Which every mother knows is the pit of attraction.
On the eighth month, Mother is in the peach orchard. She keeps walking further and further in until she can see the Cutmanns’ house. It looks small, sitting on the hill, but Mother knows it has four bedrooms and a pool in the backyard. The branches twitch behind her. “What a surprise to see you here,” says Mr. Cutmann. Mother turns.
“Shouldn’t you be at home with your wife.”
“I would much rather be here with you.”
“I would rather be anywhere than with you.”
“Yes, dear, you’ve always made that rather clear.” Mr. Cutmann’s head falls back, and he laughs. The sun fills his eyes and makes them emeralds. “This game we’ve always played,” he leans in closer to Mother, “it’s been quite entertaining. But you’ll never get a man this way. Your daughter doesn’t play these games.”
“I told you to let her be.”
“Your daughter is pretty like her mother.” He steps forward. “But far sweeter. Why always so cross? You can’t tell me you never enjoyed my attention. The nights I came outside your room.”
“You’re repulsive. You can’t seem to stop cheating on your wife.”
Mr. Cutmann’s eyes grow even brighter. “My wife has quite the hold on you. You know she hates you.”
“Your wife has given me everything I could never have.”
“Except for love. What do you really want?”
“I want you to let me and my daughter be.” Mother springs back, crushing the grass beneath her heels.
Mr. Cutmann turns and begins to walk lazily toward the house. “My dear,” he is laughing, “it’s too late for that.”
Mr. Cutmann is never angry in public. At home, he is, at the most, sullen. One day, Mother heard him throw a pot at the stove. And then he was saying over and over, “How could she leave me? How could she leave me?” Mother knew he was not talking about Mrs. Cutmann. Mother tried to think of how many mistresses Mr. Cutmann could have had in his life. The most accurate number she could think of was many.
Mr. Cutmann came out of the kitchen. He saw her standing in the hall. “My dear,” he said. His eyes were murky. “My dear.” He leaned against the wall.
“You’ll be well.” Mother looked into his face. “In time, you’ll be well.”
On the ninth month, Mother is coming through the gate. The evening is growing shadows, and for dinner, she is going to cook the turnips and lemons in the bag she carries. In the parlor, the curtains are drawn. She wonders if Daughter decided to nap there this afternoon. She goes in through the kitchen door without setting the bag on the counter.
When she walks into the parlor, the turnips and lemons roll out of the bag as it drops from Mother’s arms. Mr. Cutmann is sitting on the sofa. Daughter is in the corner. Mrs. Cutmann is holding her by her hair. “You whore. You ungrateful whore.” Mother has never heard Mrs. Cutmann shriek. The sound is sharp, like a peeling blade.
Daughter sees Mother. “Mum!” she says.
Mrs. Cutmann drops Daughter’s hair. “This is your fault. It is always the mother’s fault.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t know,” says Mother.
“You knew,” says Mrs. Cutmann. “A mother always knows.”
“It’s not her fault,” says Daughter. “It’s his fault.” She is pointing at Mr. Cutmann who leans against the arm of the sofa.
“You tricked him,” says Mrs. Cutmann. “It’s not his fault you are an incorrigible whore.”
“Leave her be,” says Mother. Mrs. Cutmann turns and slaps Mother across the face.
Daughter lunges forward. “How dare you touch my mother!” Mrs. Cutmann leaps away. Daughter falls and crouches on the floor.
“You both are incapable of gratitude,” says Mrs. Cutmann. “Those who receive charity should respect a generous women like me.”
“You stupid old woman,” says Daughter. “You stupid old woman with your stupid old sayings.”
“This is ridiculous,” says Mr. Cutmann suddenly. He stands and straightens his black suit jacket. “Get up.” He pulls Daughter to her feet. “This is what will happen.” He turns to Mother. “I will take your daughter to the city. No one will know her there. She will have the baby. I will see that the child is cared for until it is eighteen.” He turns to his wife. “You will find a new maid, a useful one. I will be here on the weekdays. On the weekends, I will be with the child.” Mrs. Cutmann looks down. She does not say anything. Mother looks at Daughter.
Daughter is glowing in her fullness. Her hand is over her stomach, and she is peering at Mr. Cutmann. This is when Mother knows Daughter will have everything. Mother will have nothing at all. “She won’t go with you,” says Mother. Daughter turns to her.
“What choice does she have,” says Mr. Cutmann.
Mother looks at Daughter. “Leave,” she says.
“Mum,” says Daughter.
“You’re a disgrace,” says Mother. “You are a disgrace to me. I’ll not have you in this house.”
“I can’t raise a child on my own,” says Daughter. There are tears on her cheeks. “Mum, I can’t be all alone.”
“You’ll get your things right now,” says Mother. She turns and goes upstairs. Her feet sound precise on the steps.
“How can you say this now?” says Daughter. “You knew. You knew all along.” Mother comes down with the basket of Daughter’s clothing. She does not look at Daughter’s face. If she does, she knows she will see how Daughter’s tears sparkle in the dusk sun. All Mother can see is her own mind. In her mind, Daughter is bright and beautiful. Daughter is wearing a silken gown. Mr. Cutmann is beside her. He holds Baby. Somewhere in the shadows, Mother is wearing a yellow dress. It is torn and stained at the knees. Mother gives Daughter the basket. She opens the door. “Leave,” Mother says.
“Mum, don’t you love me?” Daughter is shaking through to her voice.
“Sweet, desperation does not become you.”
Mother wakes at dawn. She is alone today, perhaps forever. She goes to stand on the porch to watch the sky fill grey. Tomorrow, Mrs. Cutmann will call her. “A girl who has received charity,” Mrs. Cutmann will say, “must never forget her duties.” Mother will wish she were given nothing. She will walk through the orchard to the Cutmanns’ house. The branches on the trees will be bare and worn. Mother will snap one off and arch it like a back. Somewhere, she’ll think, Daughter is a mother.